Sunday, December 9, 2012

A cry for help: Strike by SMRT China-born bus drivers reviewed from a crisis communications and staff relations perspective

Depending on whom you speak to, last week's wildcat strike by SMRT's bus drivers from China could be termed a stunning success for gaining Management's attention or an abject failure of collective action.

Companies who do not want to walk down the same road would do well understanding the objectives of the industrial action, which would help explain the contrasting and somewhat contradictory after-action analysis of this work stoppage (i.e. some say it worked, some say it was futile).

The strike seen as a success
As a cry for help, the two-day strike by workers from Singapore's largest rail and bus operator that began on Monday 26 November 2012 certainly got its ring leaders the attention they wanted. Perhaps even more than they bargained for.

Working without the benefit of a public relations (PR) agency to tell their side of the story, the strike by the China bus drivers made it to Page 1 in The Straits Times for six straight days after D-Day. It was the Page 1 lead story on five of these days:

Tues 27 Nov: 102 SMRT bus drivers protest against pay
Weds 28 Nov: Govt moves against 'illegal strike' (Pg 1 lead)
Thurs 29 Nov: Police call in 20 SMRT bus drivers (Pg 1 lead)
Fri 30 Nov: Four SMRT bus drivers charged over strike (Pg 1 lead)
Sat 1 Dec: SMRT has deep-seated issues: CEO (Pg 1 lead)
Sun 2 Dec: 29 bus drivers to be sent back to China (Pg 1 lead)

Publicity coup
The track record of publicity generated in the print, broadcast and social media would do any PR professional proud. This is quite possibly the longest-running company-centric story with an unbroken string of Page 1 leads in the 90 cents newspaper in recent memory. The event was possibly helped by the fact that Singapore had not seen a strike in the last 26 years. Indeed, the last strike predates the journalism careers of everyone on the 90 cent's newspaper's payroll. This being a man-bites-dog moment, it quite naturally dominated Prime News.

Timing helped drive publicity
Whether by accident or design, the timing of the industrial action also coincided with the dry news spell during the November/December year-end holiday season. This is a period when newsmakers typically have fewer news releases to announce, which means editors tend to milk a newspoint for all it's worth to fill news holes in the sked.

Welfare renaissance
That two-day "protest against pay" - a term coined by ST which no civil servant in Singapore's acronym obsessed bureaucracy would dare crunch down as an acronym - had a swift and decisive knock-on effect on SMRT's Management.

The Ministry of Manpower (MOM) soon came into the picture, as did assorted union officials who appeared to use the occasion to drum up support for union membership.

Pain points cited by disgruntled drivers - allegedly unequal pay, claims made over their dormitory - all came out in the open. These were addressed by MOM, SMRT, union officials and became a talking point among netizens.

The welfare renaissance that SMRT's bus drivers from China now enjoy stems directly from the industrial action that fateful Monday. It may have been unlawful to do so, but it made SMRT's Management sit up, listen and, most importantly, act on their bus drivers' concerns.

The strike seen as a failure
From a law enforcement standpoint, the industrial action could be deemed a failure because the momentum of the strike fizzled out after just two days.

Day 1: 171 SMRT bus drivers from China housed at Woodlands dormitory did not report to work.
Day 2: The number of striking SMRT bus drivers who did not report for work dwindled to 88 drivers. This translates to a 48.5% loss of support.
Day 3: Cessation of industrial action. Twenty drivers called in by the Singapore police for questioning

Singapore should count itself fortunate that the strike lost momentum and did not grow into something akin to the Polish shipyard workers' strike or sit ins by British coal miners.

Business intelligence failure
Before classing it a failure, one should note that the wildcat strike was launched with almost complete success in terms of surprise. It appeared to catch SMRT's management blindsided, which indicates that the company had not paid attention to cultivating advocates among its workforce who could be relied upon to tip-off Management of feelings from the ground.

One does not mobilise 171 people for a collective action without prior planning. It also needs a grassroots communications network that can convince participants to take part and sort out logistics like the date and time of the industrial action.

That not a word leaked out either shows that the ring leaders practised good information security, or that tell-tale signs of impending trouble like ground chatter in staff canteens was not picked up by SMRT's Management or were heard but ignored.

Critical mass and will to fight
The strike failed for the same reasons that defeat most tactical level military action: lack of critical mass and lack of the will to fight.

It would have been a different story if all SMRT drivers worked to rule in sympathy with the 171 drivers. Consequences of this collective action on an essential service provided by SMRT are not hard to imagine.

But with the loss of critical mass on Day 2, it was only a matter of time before the show ended.

On that score, Singapore's law enforcement authorities and labour relations professionals would be right in classifying the strike as a failure because the action initiated on Day 1 failed to gain traction and withered away within 48 hours.

However, when one views the industrial action as a cry for help after all other avenues were supposedly exhausted, then the welfare renaissance it triggered would rank it a success.

Importance of staff relations/internal comms
Staff relations is usually treated as an unglamourous part of a HR professional's job. Management may not see the need to devote manpower or monetary resources needed to raise, train and sustain a staff relations/internal comms campaign, or may give token attention to such initiatives.

Not every HR professional enjoys or excels at playing the part of talk show host during Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) to coax team members to speak their mind. But the talk show hat is one HR professionals must learn to wear, particularly because Singaporeans and an Asian workforce are not known to be vocal in person.

The moderator must also be quick to pick up body language that may telegraph intentions of team members to speak up about a certain issue but are wary about doing so. Experienced HR professionals would always linger on after a focus group is dismissed as a team member may come back after the group has dispersed to speak in private about a matter that bugs him/her.

The job of compiling FGD minutes of meeting into action items is often seen as an unwelcome chore, particularly with HR professionals who are not good with words to begin with and find difficulty putting pen to paper.

Furthermore, action items unearthed during FGDs may chafe nerves of supervisors who do not accept feedback in the spirit in which it is given (i.e. to create a better workplace). These individuals may take the feedback as personal criticism. Worse is to come when team members who are known to be vocal are marked as black sheep and made to pay for speaking up during the annual ranking and banding exercise.

Good staff relations
When staff relations works as planned, a HR department with its ear on the ground and a proven track record at listening to and acting on staff feedback can help Management avert situations faced by SMRT. Indeed, with good business intelligence, petitions circulating among team members have been intercepted during the signature phase and proactive action taken to address pain points.

The tricky part comes when team members need to be convinced that Management decisions, while not popular, are necessary because not all feedback can be acceded to at a time and pace that team members may want.

At the heart of all staff relations is Management's sincerity in treating all team members with dignity and respect. Without this mindset, all the sweet words and focus group discussions in the world will not help quell restive souls among workers.

You may also like:
Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa. Click here


Anonymous said...

The rot starts from the top. The downhill momentum is palpable. Idiots vote for idiots, and the harm is irreparable. This is the sorry state of the country.

西北怪狼 said...

I would argue that the strike was both a tactical and strategic success.

Tactical Success: they were able to mobilise a sizeable number of compatriots to stop work and assemble at a designated location. they managed to get attention of the press. they did manage to disrupt operations such that SMRT need to activate reserves - to the extant of asking help from SBS.

Strategic Success: the workers achieved their ends. SMRT acceded to most of their demands, such as improving their quarters, concede that they could have done better in labour relations - and even DK said he will shake up the management of SMRT. Though it was said to be unrelated, the fait accompli pay rise appeared a reaction to the strike. Majority of the workers who were not repatriated gained from that strike. (Of course, there would be casualties...)

It didn't matter if the strike ended after 48 hours. Same thing, I don't need a 100kg VBIED in Raffles Place to create pacnic in Singapore. A 2kg IED in a backpack at Woodlands MRT is sufficient to make SGX shit blood.

This short and swift action-reaction is very much like the quick cycle exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel. It lasted no more than a week - but who won? It appeared that the Palestinians was the winning side because Palestine received the non-member observer state (even if it's to shore up Abbas' and the PA's wasta) and Khalid Mashaal could set foot in Gaza after decades in exile.

On another note - any insider news on what went on behind the scene between DK and Tan Chuan Jin? Did Tan Chuan Jin make DK stand senang-diri in his office?